Handpicked to be a wise guy

Vincent Gallo, what a chap. Bolshy victim of an alienated childhood, yes. But narcissistic control freak? Never! By Liese Spencer
For his directorial debut, Buffalo 66, Vincent Gallo returns to his home town, but it's no sentimental journey. Sometimes bleak, sometimes comic, Buffalo 66 follows an outsider returning home to his unloving parents and attempting to find acceptance. It's motivated, he says, "by memory and revenge".

Vincent Gallo was four years old when he first decided to get the hell out of Buffalo. "I walked to the highway and tried to hitchhike," he remembers. "A woman picked me up and drove me home." In 1978, a 16-year-old Gallo was more successful, moving to New York where he slept in his car, had sex for money and made friends with another teenage rebel, Jean Michel Basquiat. He's been living in Manhattan ever since, making a name for himself on the avant-garde scene as a painter and a Calvin Klein model; as Prince Vince, the hip hop singer; as an actor in films such as Palookaville and Abel Ferrara's The Funeral.

But most of all, Gallo has made a name for himself as a motormouth. He has a reputation for being outspoken and offensive. In the bland world of film publicity, he's a phenomenon. Partly for his willingness to slag off others in the industry (Susan Sarandon's "a Commie", Robert De Niro "an embarrassment", Abel Ferrara "a drug addict", Tarantino "an asshole"), partly for his politics: "I'm the only creative person on the planet who's an extreme, right-wing Republican." Partly for his unreconstructed attitude towards women. "She comes to me wearing leather trousers asking to be spanked," is Gallo's greeting to me, "then she'll complain if I do it." Hmmm.

Gallo rants the way other people make small talk. He introduces himself with a diatribe about the poster his British distribution company have designed for Buffalo 66. "Have you seen what they've done?" he rages.

Snapped outside, he vents more spleen, this time about the British press. "I've never met such a bunch of filthy, passive, aggressive liars in my life." Pitching a little on his Cuban heels, his skinny-hipped pinstripe flares flapping, his nostrils flaring, Vincent poses against the wall. The photographer asks him to put his hands together as if in prayer. He presses his palms together, reluctantly, afraid the Catholic Church "might claim me as one of their own". There's little fear of that, but Gallo, with his pinched, aqualine features and his black curly hair suddenly looks like a picturebook Jesus. St Vincent. A martyr to people's preconceptions - and the dissembling fourth estate.

"I am not a walking publicity stunt. I am who I am. I'm not an artist. I'm a hustler. I've never been formally educated. To get things together, to make a living, I constantly have to hustle."

In Buffalo 66, Gallo hustles up a surprisingly romantic fable of redemptive love. Shot on location during a bleak Buffalo winter, it's the story of Billy Brown, an obsessive football fan who ends up doing time for a crime he didn't commit to pay off a Super Bowl bet, then going on a mission to assassinate the footballer responsible for missing the vital conversion that cost him a chunk of his life. Along the way, he kidnaps Christina Ricci and makes her pretend to be his teen bride on a disastrous visit home to impress his parents.

"One of those cities that was big early in the century and hasn't really found an identity for itself since," is how Gallo describes Buffalo. "It has a real inferiority complex, which I've inherited." Born to Sicilian parents, Gallo had a miserable childhood there. Both his mother and father were hairdressers, but his father retired early to become "a gambler". Vincent was starved of affection, but suckled on style. "My mother only had fashion magazines. I learnt about aesthetics, art direction and illustration very young."

In his poor, Italian neighbourhood, Gallo was "handpicked by gangsters to become a wise guy". Instead, he fled to New York and decided to take acting classes. He scraped together the fees for one lesson, but couldn't afford to keep going. Still, when he went home that Christmas, he thought he'd mention it just the same.

"I was in the car and my mother asked me what I was doing, so I said, `I'm having acting lessons with Stella Adler who taught Brando'. My father slammed on the brakes, pulled me from the car by my ears, smashed my head on the rear view mirror and said, "Look at your face. Look at your face! Do you look like Robert Redford? You look like an asshole, all right? So let's stop with this fantasy about acting bullshit. Get a simple job, all right, and be happy with that!"

Gallo's job could hardly be less simple. "I made Christina's dress," he boasts. "I made her sweater, I made her shoes, I did her hair and her make-up and I told her how to act in every scene."

Would Gallo describe himself as a control freak? "I don't know what the word `freak' means in that sentence. Do I like being in control? Yes. When you go to a party and drink yourself into a drunken stupor and need a ride home you should be happy that there's someone like me sober who can drive well to take you back. I'm comfortable being the driver."

Despite Gallo's artistic stranglehold over the film, and his presence in almost every frame, he's wounded by accusations of narcissism. "I worked very hard, it's very personal, but narcissistic? I'm the only one who didn't have hair and make-up in the film. I never gave myself more than one take. I do a five page speech where the camera is only on Christina Ricci."

Ricci's character, he admits, is a little on the reactive side, but "she's not a doll and she's not submissive. I assure you I'm not attracted to passive women in any way. My dream relationship is not with a girl who sits around and listens to what I have to say. Most of the time I spend alone because when I interact with girls I don't get great results. Because I'm not yet capable of loving and being loved without fear. So I try to avoid relationships as much as possible, and hope to become that person."

Whatever person Vincent is being at the moment, it looks exhausting. Every day he's out hustling concepts, maintaining control. Then there's his ongoing fight with the rest of the world. "It's not exhausting for me. I make it all work for me. I'm a very productive person." True, Gallo has dark circles under his eyes. But then he's always had them. "People have always thought I was a junkie because of the way I looked, but I don't take drugs and I never have. If you ask them, my classmates might say, `Oh I remember him, I think he was a junkie'. I was a depressed, alienated, angst-ridden kid who didn't eat well. I was imbalanced but never stoned."

Did that skinny, 16-year-old self ever imagine getting to this point? "Yes," smiles Gallo triumphantly. "I just thought it would happen when I was 17. I can't believe that it's taken this long."

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